World War II General

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Overrated

Most of the generals of World War II are now forgotten. History has already had its say about which will be remembered. Seen from a distance, generals of high repute make a kind of sense even in their own time. Their reputations are explicable. Qualities of character and mind unbidden by the routines of peace are often called forth by the demands of war. How these men met these demands usually fixes their reputations for good or ill. During the war, Lewis Brereton was rated high enough in someone’s esteem to draw a succession of important U.S. Army Air Corps commands, rising in rank from brigadier to lieutenant general— no small feat, since he was a kind of Typhoid Mary in uniform. Wherever he landed, disaster was not far behind.

When the Japanese struck the American air base at Clark Field in the Philippines the day after Pearl Harbor, Brereton’s B-17s were perfectly lined up on the tarmac, despite MacArthur’s orders to guard against surprise attack. The Japanese happily destroyed all but 35 of his 145 aircraft. The year 1943 found Brereton in North Africa, where he put his stamp on planning for an air offensive against the oil fields at Ploesti. Brereton had little patience for high-altitude bombing and insisted on a lowlevel attack. Twenty-five percent of his force did not return. By early 1944 he was in command of the air forces charged with supporting the D-day invasion, only he didn’t think training for the complexities of air-ground cooperation was really necessary, and over this and other issues he quarreled importantly with Field Marshal Montgomery and General Bradley. When Bradley’s army tried its breakout from Normandy, Brereton was in command of Operation Cobra, air strikes that killed Gen. Leslie McNair and a hundred other American soldiers in one of the costliest friendly fire incidents of the war.

 
 

Never mind; a new assignment came through just in time. He was given command of the first Allied airborne army in history, with the mission of conducting the most ambitious airborne operation of the war, MarketGarden, or as some came to know it, “a bridge too far.” By that stage of the war, however, plenty of incompetent commanders were available to help Brereton drop his troops right on top of several full-strength German divisions.

Someone kept promoting Brereton. Someone kept recommending him for ever more important commands. In someone’s eyes, Brereton was very highly rated—highly overrated, as it happened.

Underrated

Lucian Truscott is similarly obscure. Truscott’s promotions came even faster than Brereton’s, and he commanded in battle at every echelon from regiment to field army. During this war the infantry divisions were the hard core of American military power on the ground, and among their commanders were some of the very best soldiers America put into the field. Lucian Truscott was arguably the best American division commander in the war, and for him it was a long war indeed, stretching from Morocco and Tunisia through Sicily to mainland Italy—two amphibious assaults there, at Salerno and at Anzio—and to southern France, where he took VI Corps up the Rhone Valley. He took over the 5th Army in Italy late in 1944 and finished the war with a campaign against desperate German resistance in the Po Valley. Not one of his campaigns could have been called easy; his troops fought their way over some of the worst terrain and against some of the most determined enemy the European theater had to offer.

Truscott was raised as a cavalry officer. He had wit and dash and a talent to lead, a fine mind, and a ready pen. After the war he wrote one of the best memoirs by any American fighting general, Command Missions . But in a miscarriage of history, he has disappeared from the view of all but the most serious students of the war. Let Brereton replace him in obscurity.